Officials and candidate tour troubled Pennsylvania Avenue; Task force organized to shore up once-vibrant center of black community


George and Doris Washington have lived about two blocks from Pennsylvania Avenue for nearly 20 years. They've seen a big chunk of it become a dilapidated haven for drug dealers, addicts, and prostitutes. But yesterday when George Washington, 73, saw Martin O'Malley, other elected officials and city leaders on a walking tour of The Avenue, he didn't hesitate to ask Democratic mayoral nominee O'Malley to help clean up the West Baltimore street, once a cultural hub of the black community.

"I hope you can do something with this neighborhood," Washington said, adding that drug dealers approach senior citizens when they walk to supermarkets or banks along the corridor.

"Just as soon as you leave, they'll be back selling whatever," Washington said.

In an interview, Washington said seniors and others must go out of their way to avoid drug peddlers. "What we need is foot patrolmen in this neighborhood like they have downtown."

The tour was organized by the recently formed Pennsylvania Avenue Task Force. Created at the request of Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III, it promotes the redevelopment of the street's commercial facade, which extends from West Fulton Avenue to Martin Luther King Boulevard and crosses the Penn North, Druid Heights, Sandtown-Winchester, Upton and Marble Hill neighborhoods.

Headed by task force chairwoman and 44th District Del. Verna L. Jones, the tour was supported by the Department of Housing and Community Development. It began about 1 p.m., lasted for about 90 minutes and stopped at 14 historic sites, including the Penn-Dol Pharmacy, which opened in 1934 and was the first independent, white-owned pharmacy in the city to hire an African-American pharmacist; the Billie Holiday statue; and the St. Peter Claver Catholic Church.

Before the walk, Jones shared a letter written to her by Tiffany Rose, 7, a third-grader at Mount Royal Elementary School.

"I'm writing because I'm afraid to go to the store or school with my mother on Pennsylvania Avenue," Tiffany's letter reads. "I'm scared I might get shot or killed. So many people are on drugs."

Tiffany shook hands with O'Malley and chatted briefly with him as the tour stopped outside the Shake And Bake Family Fun Center.

O'Malley's challenger, Republican David F. Tufaro, was outside Avenue Market with supporters as about 35 people on the tour made their way inside.

In an interview, Tufaro said he had been on Pennsylvania Avenue talking to drug addicts for about two hours.

"They want drug treatment, and they want effective job training," Tufaro said. "They're also very upset about zero tolerance."

After the tour, O'Malley again defended zero tolerance. "We are going to be just as active in policing our police as we are in policing other types of conduct," he said. "We will police both with fairness. People are going to have to see."

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